President polluter | On Politics | Chicago Reader

Columns & Opinion » On Politics

President polluter

Chicago EPA employees defend the environment—and their union— from the Trump administration.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment
EPA project officer Loreen Targos and the banner she unfurled in protest - NICOLE CANTELLO
  • Nicole Cantello
  • EPA project officer Loreen Targos and the banner she unfurled in protest

Ever since he waddled into office three years ago, President Trump has been waging war against the environment, and the union of federal employees who are trying to protect it.

Last week the union fought back.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Loreen Targos, an Environmental Protection Agency project officer in the Chicago office who had the guts to—well, we'll get to what Targos had the guts to do.

But first, Trump's war on the environment.

He has, among other things, opened up federal land to oil and gas drilling, lifted limits on coal mining leases, redefined what water bodies are in order to make it easier for companies to pollute them, and attempted to prevent states like California from setting their own limits on auto emissions.

I'm sure I left something out of that list. Oh, yes, he pulled out of the Paris Agreement to combat global warming, which he dismisses as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

That's your president, America.

It's gotten so bad that the beaches of western Florida have been paralyzed by the red tide, a noxious algae bloom caused in part by warming water temps.

Ordinarily, Trump and his Republican allies would say "so what?" to something like the red tide, but it's sort of like that shark that haunted the beaches of Massachusetts in Jaws: it's scaring off the tourists!

Trump's pollsters had to break the bad news that if he didn't do something—anything—he could lose Florida, a key swing state, in the 2020 election.

Moreover, their internal polls showed that swing-voting millennials and women needed some sort of assurance that Trump actually cares about the environment or they might be tempted to vote Democratic. (Apparently older white men would vote for Trump even if he was caught dumping red algae into the ocean.)

So on July 8, Trump called the press to the White House, where he delivered a one-hour ode to himself for having made the environment great again.

I'd say that swing-state millennials and women are too smart to fall for this. Except I watched Chicagoans reelect Mayor Rahm in 2015, so, really, when it comes to voters—anything's possible.

Curiously enough, Trump delivered his environmental speech on the very day he launched another salvo at EPA employees by imposing a settlement in their contract negotiations.

Trump says the EPA union—represented by the American Federation of Government Employees—has been recalcitrant in negotiations. The union says it's the other way around, that Trump's the recalcitrant one.

My instinct is to side with the union—c'mon, even MAGA hat wearers must concede Trump's not exactly a truth teller.

But put that issue to the side. Where did Trump's lawyers study contract law? No credible law professor in the country would say it's legal for one side to unilaterally impose a new contract on the other side in the middle of negotiations.

OK, maybe Alan Dershowitz might say it's OK since he's fallen in love with Trump. But I said credible law professor.

By the way, EPA employees are not the only federal workers victimized by Trump's curious interpretation of contract law. His administration pulled the same stunt with employees at the Veterans Administration, the Department of Education, and the Social Security Administration.

In the case of the EPA, Trump has taken away employees' rights to file a grievance regarding a punishment, and he's forced presidents of local unions to return to their regular federal jobs.

Ordinarily, the presidents of governmental locals are allowed to go on the equivalent of leave during their terms, giving them time to work full-time for the union.

It would be as though Mayor Lightfoot had ordered Fraternal Order of Police president Kevin Graham to walk a beat or CTU president Jesse Sharkey to go back to teaching history at Senn High School because she felt negotiations were dragging on too long.

"It's union busting—plain and simple," says Nicole Cantello, the president of AFGE Local 704, which represents about 1,000 EPA employees in the midwest.

The federal unions have filed appeals to the appropriate federal bureaucratic entities. Eventually, they're hoping, the authorities will dismiss Trump's contract imposition as illegal and force the administration to return to the negotiating table.

But those appeals may take weeks to adjudicate. "Trump doesn't care if imposing a contract is illegal," says Cantello. "He says, 'I'm doing it—stop me!'"

While this contract battle was going down, Targos was among several employees invited to Washington to receive an award for "superior service" from EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler.

As a project officer out of the Chicago office, Targos helped oversee the restoration of the wetlands contaminated by oil spills at the Zephyr Oil Refinery in Muskegon, Michigan. Targos decided she couldn't receive the award in good conscience without speaking out. So, on July 10, after walking across the stage and shaking hands and posing for pictures with Wheeler, she made her move.

"We were standing onstage making small talk," she says. "He said he was the only EPA administrator to swim in the Great Lakes. I'm thinking, 'That can't be true.' Then I said, 'I have a question for you—do you support fair contracts?'"

With that, she pulled out a banner she'd been concealing in the front of her pants and unfurled it while she stood onstage next to Wheeler. It read: "I care about EPA workers having a fair contract to address public health & climate change. Do you?"

Like I said—badass move.

So far, EPA officials have not punished Targos for her protest. But I wouldn't be surprised if they did. And having eradicated the contract provision that allows employees to file a grievance against punishment, they might feel they can get away with it.

"We're going to have to stay vigilant," says Cantello.

If only Trump was as tough on polluters as he is with federal employees, maybe there wouldn't be a red tide of noxious algae scaring off the tourists in Florida. v

Add a comment